While trapped inside on a rainy Seattle day in 2015, Austin Campbell and Joe Shaw discovered a shared interest in starting their own company. After some intense brainstorming, the idea of U.S.-manufactured merino wool hiking socks nearly knocked their *current* socks straight off their feet.
Three years since, Cloudline Apparel has reached cloud nine status, pushing the envelope in terms of comfort and durability.
I sat down with the sock moguls to discuss their Seattle-based startup and get a deeper look into the people, process—and of course—sheep, behind the product.
Was there a specific inciting moment for you guys with the business? When did you decide to really get it rolling?
Joe: After being out in the corporate world, we’ve found that it’s really about trying to find a way to tie our passions into something profitable. And, as we’ve gone along, we’ve just gotten so many comments from people telling us how much they love our products.
We just had a customer the other day who sent an email, and in the signature line it said something like, “Cloudline for Life.” And we were amazed, seeing people using our stuff and truly enjoying it.
Austin: And in that email she was outlining how she bought like half a dozen pairs for different friends who she hiked with as gifts … yeah, she might be our biggest fan. Shout out to Stacy!
What’s the toughest part of starting up?
Austin: Patience. Finding a factory, I think, was a big challenge, and finding the right wool. I literally went in Google to around page 35 of search results until I randomly found a directory of sock manufacturers in the U.S. that was outdated and maybe three-fourths of them had moved overseas.
We’d call the number or email and get no response, but we tried to get responses from as many as we could and received some sample socks ... I will say that sock manufacturers in the U.S. aren’t the best at marketing themselves. And most sock mills are fairly specialized; the equipment is pretty expensive and intricate.
What’s the most rewarding part of a workday?
Joe: One thing we do is include a handwritten note with every order, a quick little “Thanks for your order” on a postcard, and we’ve had a lot of our customers post them on social media, and it really kind of makes our day when we see that.
Austin: When a customer will email us about how much they love the socks and the adventures they’ve had with them, that’s really great. We’ve also had several people who are going through chemo or other medical treatment and their skin can become very sensitive, and they’ve taken the time to email us to say how much they love our socks because the wool is so soft, and they’re the only socks they can wear because their skin is so irritated by the side effects of their treatment ... that always feels nice when our products provide new uses and comforts.
What’s behind the Cloudline company name?
Austin: While we were brainstorming names I was looking at a glossary of hiking terms from the internet, probably from some random website, and picked a few that I liked and we went back and forth and “cloudline” had a nice sound to it.
And one of my favorite memories is hiking the Pacific Crest Trail between Stevens’ Pass and Snoqualmie Pass, and they probably weren’t cloud clouds—it was maybe an inversion layer—but we were hiking along the ridge and you could see forever down the valley and just ... clouds. It was one of my favorite times, so when I think of “cloudline” I think of that experience.
Joe: One thing I like to think about is that Seattle is pretty rainy and cloudy a lot of the time, and you can kind of get lost in that. It’s just dreary. But then if you get up the motivation to go out on a hike, you can hike through and get above it, and see the blue sky and sun and it just reminds you that, you know, it’s all about perspective.
If you could work anywhere in the world, where would it be?
Joe: It’d probably be Bali, which is an island in Indonesia. It’s a really cool place. I went there for my honeymoon and it’s beautiful, volcanic, very mountainous, has wild hiking, and there’s also a really cool community of entrepreneurs there—sort of a “digital nomads” type of scene, like people who do all their work without a fixed location over the internet. I think it would be a really cool opportunity to partake in that.
Austin: If I could work anywhere, my girlfriend and I have an ‘89 Vanagon Westfalia, so I’d say work from the road, van lifestyle. Visit all the national parks and hiking spots. And it could actually be feasible, but what keeps us in Seattle is shipping our socks, right? So if we hired someone eventually or outsourced that to a fulfillment center ... After all, I doubt I could fit all the socks in my van and ship from the road.
Lastly, if you could own a miniature version of any animal, what would it be and why?
Joe: Definitely a rhino. Cause, just seeing him ram into stuff would be cute and hilarious. I’d probably name him Tom or something.
Austin: I was gonna say a black bear, because whenever I go hiking around here we don’t have grizzlies at all, so black bears is what we do see and I get super excited any time there’s a chance for a sighting. That’s like the goal when I go hiking a lot. And option two, maybe a merino wool sheep, you know, have him graze around the office. I’d name him Fluffy.